What an interesting couple of books to start the spring semester with. The mammoth and overwhelming almost 1,000-page classic A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, and thankfully the much smaller How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James Smith that helped us actually read and digest Taylor. I appreciated Smith’s description of Taylor’s work right off the bat. He says…“Indeed, there is something fundamentally literary, even poetic, in Taylor’s prosaic account of our “secular age” — this pluralized, pressurized moment in which we find ourselves, where believers are beset by doubt and doubters, every once in a while, find themselves tempted by belief. It is Taylor’s complexity, nuance, and refusal of simplistic reductionisms that make him a reliable cartographer who provides genuine orientation in our secular age.” In researching more about Taylor and his take on the secular age, it was definitely confirmed that he is often referenced on the subject and considered an authority. I, on the other hand, have never heard of him or his book, and I have never read much on the subject of secularism. Growing up in south Los Angeles made me feel like I was living in “the secular age” as it continued to develop, I definitely did not feel sheltered.
Not that sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll define secularism, but it felt like I grew up in an environment that was very far from God. My high school was surrounded by barbed-wire fencing with armed guards at every gate (this was before metal detectors were more prevalent or we would have had those as well). Drug busts were almost a daily occurrence, and it seemed like most of the kids I sat next to in class were on some kind of substance. I stopped asking what my classmates did over the weekend because I got tired of hearing about all of their sexual escapades and drinking parties. Teachers seemed to teach to the lowest common denominator, which meant getting good grades for us normal kids were a breeze. I also remember a shocking experience while sitting at one of the lab desks in biology class one day while the teacher was lecturing. My deskmate happened to be a member of one of the Asian gangs in town and he decided that day was a good day to show me his new handgun under the desk while the teacher lectured up front. I was surprised that I wasn’t more freaked out, but it almost felt like a normal “show and tell” moment at the time. Oh, and do you think I said a word about it to any adult?…the fact that I am writing this tells you I didn’t even think of telling anyone. This same kid would tell me frightening stories of what they did to people and animals over the weekend that seemed right out of a movie. In fact, one of my best friends at the time, who happened to be African-American, was shot and killed in a Jack-in-the-Box drive-thru by members of one of these gangs a block from my house.
North Torrance High School was a dark place, with not much evidence of Judeo-Christian values present. I’m sure other high schools around the country were similar, but for me, living a Christian life in this environment was difficult and lonely. I could never venture to eat anything that was brought to an in-class party because inevitably kids would add Ex-Lax to the brownies or throw left-over french fries in the vanilla cake mix. There was an overarching hedonistic attitude and a seeming disregard for other humans. Another traumatic memory of high school was coming to school one morning and seeing yellow police tape blocking off the entire football and track stadium complex. Later in the day we found out that a woman was jogging on the track the night before and got attacked and stabbed over 50 times. Amazingly, she somehow managed to crawl to a nearby house for help and survived. Needless to say, this kept the evening joggers away for a while. On a lighter note, I thought I would throw in a piece of fun trivia, Chuck Norris and I happened to graduate from the same high school…I just wished I had his martial arts skills while attending.
Taylor speaks to this disturbing hedonistic egoism when he says, “The shift is often understood, particularly by those most disturbed by it, as an outbreak of mere egoism, or a turn to hedonism. In other words, two things which were identified clearly as vices in a traditional ethic of community service and self-discipline are targeted as the motors of change. But I think this misses an important point. Egoism and the mere search for pleasure (whatever exactly these amount to) may play a larger or smaller role in the motivation of different individuals, but a large-scale shift in general understandings of the good requires some new understanding of the good.” Understanding a world without God or people who are not driven by the same purpose or moral compass as myself has been a challenge over the years. Many people feel there is nothing wrong with being driven by their hedonistic desires and believe it is their right to run over whoever or whatever to get it. This is the water I had to swim in growing up in south LA.
Shifting gears, I needed to include and comment on my favorite quote from Smith’s guide to Taylor. “The Christian religion didn’t last so long merely because everyone believed it”, Barnes observes. It lasted because it makes for a helluva novel — which is pretty close to Tolkien’s claim that the gospel is true because it is the most fantastic fantasy, the greatest fairy story ever told. And Barnes, a great lover of both music and painting, knows that much of what he enjoys owes its existence to Christianity. Without the madness of the gospel, Mozart would never have composed a requiem, Giotto would never have left us the treasures in the chapel of Padua.” This grabbed me because it resonates with what I have always said about the amazing stories in the Bible. All of the fairytales, movies and stories of good triumphing over evil all originate from the greatest story ever told…the author of creation loving His created ones by conquering death and evil in order to give us eternal life with Him.